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Eric Devin looks forward to the AFCON and the top 10 young players to look out for during the tournament.
In perusing the squad lists for this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, one is immediately struck by the amount of young players collectively selected. Some of this is due to teams like Cameroon and Ivory Coast undergoing generational shifts; as established stars retire from international duty, or, indeed, football, altogether, the need to replace them with fresh faces becomes more important. Other squads, such as that of Guinea-Bissau, reflect a surprising qualification with youth at the fore; the manager thus continues to reward the players for their performances. To narrow this down to just ten names was a tough task indeed, and we have therefore included an additional six players who came close but didn’t make the final cut, either because their chances of featuring in the tournament are slim, or because their team may struggle.
All players are aged 22 or younger as of January 14, 2017. They are listed with their age, country, position(s) and club team.
Franck Kessié / 20 / Ivory Coast / Midfield / Atalanta
One of the more recognizable names on this list, Kessié only turned 20 in December, but his performances for an Atalanta side pushing for European football have been eye-catching. The powerful youngster was originally a central defender, but was moved forward due to a lack of height. Incredibly strong, and a gifted dribbler, he also is a decent tackler, if still a little rough around the edges. Manager Michel Dussuyer generally uses a 4-3-3, with Kessié linking play between attack and the more prosaic Geoffroy Serey Dié. A creative presence as well as a keen defender, Kessié’s physicality, energy and inventiveness make him a consummate central midfielder. He has also already scored six goals for his club this season as well, an added benefit for an Ivory Coast side that has struggled to find the back of the net in the recent past. Sure to be a key part of midfield for one of the tournament’s favorites, Kessié is an easy choice for this list.
Chancel Mbemba / 22 / DR Congo / Midfield/Defense / Newcastle United
An invisible figure this season at Newcastle due to the partnership of Ciaran Clark and Jamal Lascelles, former Anderlecht player Mbemba has also been pushed out of a starting role in defense for his country. The emergence of Marcel Tisserand alongside captain Gabriel Zakuani has been key in this regard, but Mbemba has similarly adapted. Despite not being a regular for his club, he has continued to feature for his country, albeit further forward. Deployed a defensive midfielder, Mbemba’s lack of height is less of an issue, and he is also better able to exploit his pace. A decent passer of the ball as well, Mbemba’s newer role is a testament to his importance for his country, and although they have a tough group with Ivory Coast and Morocco, his guile and physicality will surely be key if they can pip their fancied rivals to a place in the quarterfinals.
Fabrice Ondoa / 21 / Cameroon / Goalkeeper / Sevilla B (on loan from Gimnastic)
This entry about Cameroon’s brilliant young ‘keeper was supposed to have been written about André Onana, but the Ajax guardian declined the call-up, like many of his teammates. Cameroon, so long one of Africa’s top teams, will instead rely on a player who wasn’t wanted by a team in Spain’s second division. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as Ondoa has earned more than a dozen caps for his country since making his debut just after Cameroon’s disastrous World Cup in 2014. He played in the most recent edition of AFCON as well, seeing his country eliminated after scoring only twice in three matches. Slightly undersized but powerfully built, Ondoa will evoke a Vincent Enyeama for many, with superb reflexes, good command of his area but a proclivity for punching unnecessarily. His distribution also could use some work, as he lacks a great deal of power in his kicking, but if Cameroon are to do well in this tournament, a bit of Ondoa’s flair will likely be of paramount importance.
Didier Ndong / 22 / Gabon / Midfield / Sunderland
Sublime at Lorient last season, Ndong’s move to Sunderland in the summer was nevertheless greeted with some surprise. The diminutive and fiery midfielder was adept at breaking up play but liked a booking to a somewhat paralyzing degree. Sunderland might have been guilty of looking for the next N’Golo Kanté in making their €20M purchase, but Ndong has generally shown enough for David Moyes’ side to keep the fans happy. He has been compared more than once to Michael Essien, and his combination of pace, power, and versatility make it easy to see why. Under José Antonio Camacho, Gabon have been a nasty, negative side, with Ndong played alongside Lévy Madinda and Mario Lemina in a 4-3-1-2. All three have an aggressive streak to their style, but it will be Ndong’s energy that can make the difference for the hosts.
Nabil Bentaleb / 22 / Algeria / Midfield / Schalke (on loan from Tottenham Hotspur)
Only 22 in November, it seems a lifetime ago that Bentaleb was a key factor in Tottenham’s 2014-15 season, emerging along with Harry Kane and Ryan Mason from seemingly nowhere to power a hungry young side. Last season was quite a bit poorer, though, as injuries and the emergence of Dele Alli limited his opportunities. Bentaleb took a leap of faith and went on loan to Schalke, where his development has continued apace. A big, strong player, he has impressed in a more advanced role, chipping in with the odd goal while using his power and dribbling abilities to link play from deep when called upon. This is done in balance, though, without being derelict in protecting the defense. His positional versatility and on-pitch intelligence have never been in doubt, and his maturity will be all the more important for an Algerian side developing a new central defensive partnership.
Abdul Baba Rahman / 22 / Ghana / Fullback / Schalke (on loan from Chelsea)
Another Premier League exile, Rahman has found his time in Gelsenkirchen a bit more difficult than Bentaleb. Manager Markus Weinzierl has often opted to go with three at the back, and despite the Ghanain’s searing pace, Bosnian international Sead Kolasinac has been preferred. There have been a handful of starts in the Europa League, but Rahman has looked a long way off the incendiary presence he could be at times last season for Chelsea, even his defensive contributions have improved in Germany. He will be eager to atone for the 2015 tournament though, and his pace and crossing abilities will be key for a team that has all of the pieces to make another deep run in the tournament.
Lassana Coulibaly / 20 / Mali / Midfield / Bastia
It’s been a tough season for Bastia; serious injuries to the likes of Sebastien Squillaci, Abdelhamid Kaoutari and Alexandre Djiku have seen the team struggle to establish a rhythm. There have been impressive performances from Allan Saint-Maximin and Enzo Crivelli, but both are only on loan. Hope for the future for the Corsican club does exist, though, in the form of Lassana Coulibaly. A box-to-box midfielder, the lanky young Malian is an instinctive passer of the ball, an adept dribbler and superb at linking play with short passes. That’s not the sort of football that Bastia play, though, so he has also necessarily developed a good defensive work ethic as well. Given that Mali can be easier on the eye than Bastia, this tournament could be a real coming-out party for the youngster, who has featured in each of his country’s last three matches.
Nicolas Pepé / 21 / Ivory Coast / Winger / Angers
Direct, pacy, and inventive, Nicolas Pepé’s emergence is one of the few things that has gone right for struggling Angers this season. A season-ending injury to Billy Ketkeophomphone gave the youngster his chance, and he has formed an important part of an all-African attack with Karl Toko Ekambi and Famara Diedhiou. Pepé will be unlikely to feature from the off for his country, but his brilliant cameo against France in November shows he is the type of burgeoning talent who can break open a tight match. His defensive contributions can be lacking, which makes him a risk for a whole match, but he could be the player who makes the difference for Les Éléphants in a tight group.
Keita Baldé Diao / 21 / Senegal / Winger / Lazio
Much like Kessié, Baldé Diao is any easy pick for this list, having already netted a career-high five goals for Lazio this season as part of a youthful attack alongside Felipé Anderson. Despite having only made his debut for Senegal in March, the former Barcelona academy product has become indispensable for his country. A quick and versatile player, comfortable on the wing or as a center forward, his development is still a work in progress, as he sometimes struggles with his first touch in a defensively-oriented Serie A. However, with Sadio Mané on the opposite flank and Moussa Kounaté playing centrally, Senegal have one of the tournament’s most dangerous attacks, and the development of Baldé Diao has at last provided the necessary balance to take the Lions of Teranga to the next level.
Ramy Bensebaini / 21 / Algeria / Center Back / Rennes
Bensebaini is surprisingly young for his position, but to focus to a great extent on his age would be to disrespect his burgeoning talent. Quick, intelligent and an aerial threat at 6′ 2″, Bensebaini was originally brought in to Montpellier on loan last season for his positional versatility, as he is also comfortable at left back and in defensive midfield. Since moving to Rennes in the summer though, he has blossomed, becoming one of the division’s best defenders, a senseless red card against Lyon notwithstanding. His presence in the team has seen the vastly experienced Rafik Halliche and Carl Medjani dropped, making him the presumptive first choice alongside Aissa Mandi. The two make a more mobile pairing than either of the two men they’ve displaced, but they represent a major gamble for newly installed manager George Leekens. If Algeria survive a tricky group, his faith in a young back line will have been key.
Bertrand Traoré / 21 / Burkina Faso / Winger / Ajax (on loan from Chelsea)
The only player on this list set to play in his third AFCON, Traoré was first capped for his country at the age of fifteen. Playing for both Vitesse Arnhem and now Ajax since joining Chelsea, Traoré is exceptionally quick and a good dribbler. He is also surprisingly strong, his wiry frame adept at holding off opposing players. He is generally used as a right winger, fond of cutting inside onto his left foot to ride the challenges of opposing center backs. He can be a bit selfish at times, both shooting and dribbling, but that is not necessarily the worst thing for a team starved of attacking talent. In a group without a clear favorite as a result of the numerous withdrawals from Cameroon’s squad, his sublime finishing and confidence could make the difference for his country.
Denis Bouanga / 22 / Gabon / Winger / Tours (on loan from Lorient)
Yet to win his first cap, Bouanga has five goals and five assists for a mediocre Tours side in Ligue 2. He could be used as a substitute for manager José Antonio Camacho, with his pace and directness a welcome option from the bench.
Adama Traoré / 21 / Mali / Midfield / Monaco
Injuries and a change in formation have flummoxed the former Lille player this season, but he is a major talent, as evidenced by his performances at the 2015 U-20 World Cup, where he won the Golden Ball. He could partner the impressive Lassana Coulibaly in midfield, but manager Alain Giresse might also opt for more solidity.
Yves Bissouma / 20 / Mali / Midfield / Lille
Bissouma only made his club debut this year, but he is another of a long line of African players to break through with Lille, including Everton and Senegal standout Idrissa Gueye. Able to play wide or centrally, Bissouma’s pace and aggression make him a welcome change of pace, but he will need to show something rare to make an impact this tournament.
Serge N’Guessan / 22 / Ivory Coast / Midfield / Nancy
A diminutive box-to-box midfielder with a remarkable combination of physicality and an eye for a pass, N’Guessan is incredibly skillful, but the good form of Seri and Kessié will probably see him remain on the bench barring an injury.
Youssef Ait Bennasser / 20 / Morocco / Midfield / Nancy (on loan from Monaco)
A versatile and physical presence, Ait Bennasser has been a Swiss Army knife of sorts, playing at right back, centre back and in his customary central midfield for Hervé Renard’s side as they seek to cope with injuries. His versatility makes him an important squad player, but it’s probably too early for him to hope to unseat the likes of Mounir Obbadi and Romain Saiss.